Ancient Chinese Sculpture

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  • 0:04 Sculpture in Ancient China
  • 0:34 Bronze Casting
  • 1:43 The Terra Cotta Army
  • 2:49 Representations of Buddha
  • 3:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

China has a long history of incredible art. In this lesson, we'll explore the history of ancient Chinese sculpture, including examples of bronze, terra cotta, and Buddha depictions.

Sculpture in Ancient China

Did you know that Chinese artists learned to cast metal objects thousands of years ago? Have you ever heard about a life-sized clay army of warriors? The tradition of sculpture in China goes back thousands of years. Small figural (meaning resembling something in nature, like a person or an animal) carvings have been found in burials dating back to the Stone Age. While ancient Chinese artists worked in many media, they specialized in cast metals and terra cotta (meaning baked clay).

Bronze Casting

China's earliest recorded history begins with the Shang Dynasty around the 17th century BCE. During this period, artists excelled at carving jade, which is an extremely hard precious stone that they acquired through trade with other cultures, but Shang artists became even more known for another skill. They invented sophisticated casting techniques for bronze, which is an alloy of tin and copper, and their skill developed independently of other cultures at the time. This period became known as the Great Bronze Age.

Shang Dynasty metalworkers made weapons, funerary goods, ceremonial drums, and storage vessels decorated with distinctive decorative taotie, or animal-like masks with prominent eyes and features like fangs and horns. One example of early bronze work is a cast tiger that was once part of a storage vessel, which you can see on the image below. It was created between 1200 BCE and 1050 BCE. The surface is covered with curving linear designs, and it's very recognizable as a cat. It has a sense of movement and body as it curls its tail and looks up at us.

Bronze tiger from a vessel cover, Shang Dynasty
bronze tiger from Shang Dynasty

The Terra Cotta Army

Ancient Chinese artists also made objects from terra cotta, or baked clay. Some were used for trade and others for cooking and food storage. Many pieces were created as funerary goods, and in 1974 an archaeological excavation resulted in one of the most spectacular finds of funerary art in the history of China.

In the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, who died in 210 BCE, archaeologists unearthed a terra cotta army in combat formation. Between 6,000 and 8,000 life-size statues of warriors and horses stood at the ready with weapons, armor, and harnesses all made from clay. Artists created them to help the emperor rule in the afterlife.

View of terra cotta army in formation, original excavation site
army in formation

The army represents a monumental amount of work. Archaeologists think it took government laborers and skilled craftsmen decades to make. Each statue is made of molded clay pieces that were assembled, and then the whole figure was fired in a large kiln. They were once colorfully painted, adding to each statue's uniqueness, with distinct facial features and elaborate costumes.

View of terra cotta army figures, showing how they were constructed
Terra cotta army

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